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Cine Essentials: Scouting a Location

By Aimee Baldridge
Published by Sekonic

Scheimpflüg Digital founder and production expert John Engstrom gives a step-by-step rundown of how to scout a location to prepare for a cine shoot.

Lighting a cine shoot, whether it’s large or small, can be tricky. You have to make sure that everything in the scene falls within the camera’s dynamic range, that no lights or other equipment appear inside the frame when the camera moves around, and that your lighting setup creates the look the director wants to achieve. And staying on schedule so that the right lights are set up as the director moves from scene to scene is important too.

To pull it all off professionally, you have to plan well. Scouting a location before the shoot lets you figure out what gear to bring, what the illumination levels will need to be, and how to keep your crew’s schedule in sync with the shoot timeline created by the director of photography (DP).

We asked John Engstrom, founder of Scheimpflüg Digital, to guide us through the process of scouting a location to prepare for a cine shoot. 


Tools and Information

You can use these devices, software, and pieces of information during the process of scouting a location and planning for the shoot.
 
  • Light meter. For measuring ambient light, as well as bright and dark areas.
  • Camera information. Find out which ISO, frame rate, and filters the DP wants to use during the shoot. If it’s a film shoot, find out the shutter angle.
  • Desired lighting information. Often the DP will be able to tell you what kind of lighting should be used for the key light and possibly other lights.
  • Camera phone or snapshot camera. For taking snapshots of the location.
  • Notepad (paper or digital). For making sketches and notes.
  • Script, storyboard, scene descriptions. Get as much information as you can about what will happen in each scene from the director or DP. The DP might also be able to provide examples from other films of the kind of lighting look desired.
  • Light-related apps. These can include apps that provide weather predictions, tell you where the sun will be at any given time, or convert measurements. Some of Engstrom’s favorites are Pocket LD, pCAM, and Helios.
  • Shoot schedule or timeline. Get this from the director, DP, or assistant director.
  • Tape and a Sharpie. For marking lighting locations on the floor. Engstrom uses neon yellow tape.
  • Amp probe, circuit tester, screw driver. For scouting the electrical system.
  • Measuring tape or laser measurer. For measuring distances in the scene. A laser measurer will allow you to measure areas that you can’t physically reach with a tape measure.
  • Portable modifier. Production experts like Engstrom can visualize how ambient light will fall when it’s diffused or reflected with different modifiers, but if you’re just starting out, you might find it helpful to bring a fold-up reflector or diffuser along to experiment with.
 

    Engstrom: “I like to get the jump on everything. That’s why the meter is so important during the scout. There’s no camera and there’s no monitor, but I still feel comfortable that I can visualize the image before it becomes an image. And during the shoot, I don’t look like a schmuck and have to be told that something is too bright or too dark.”


    The Process

    Follow this process to scout each space where a scene will be set in the location. If the location has multiple spaces, repeat the process in each space. If separate scenes will be shot in a single space, and will include different camera and subject positions, or changes to physical elements of the scene, repeat the process in the same space for each scene.

    Take an overall meter reading.

    This step measures the general ambient light level in the space where you’ll be shooting.
    1. Set your meter to Incident Mode. Make sure the dome on your meter is not retracted.
    2. Set your meter to the ISO that the DP wants to use for the shoot.
    3. If you’re using a cine meter, set the frames per second your DP will be shooting at.
    4. If you’re shooting on film and using a shutter angle other than 180 degrees, use a cine meter that lets you set the shutter angle.
    5. Stand in the spot where the subject is going to stand. A map of the scene should be included in the material you get from the DP in advance.
    6. Aim your meter’s dome at the spot where the camera will be.
    7. Take a reading and make a note of it. Make sure to label it clearly in your notes or write it on a diagram of the space so that when you look at it later, you’ll know exactly what the reading is for.
    8. Note the lights or modifiers you will need to bring the overall light level up or down to the desired level, and where you will place them. You can also go ahead and mark their placements on the floor with your tape. You may make changes after discussing your scout with the DP, but you should make a preliminary plan while you’re on the spot.  
    9. If there is direct light hitting you, aim your meter’s dome at that and take another reading. Record it in your notes.
    10. If the DP will be using filters on the camera, take a second set of readings with the ISO adjusted for the filter factor. Some advanced meters allow you to program in a second set of camera settings, so that you can easily switch back and forth between readings at different ISO settings.

    Engstrom: “I usually walk through with a pad of paper, and every page is a new shot. I’ll create a lighting diagram and equipment list for each of them. A lot of times, I’ll shoot pictures with my phone or my little point-and-shoot, and then when I get to a desk, I’ll look at all my notes and make a full equipment list.”

    Meter hot spots.

    This step measures the light level of elements that produce, transmit, or reflect light. They can include room lights, windows, metallic and mirror surfaces, and even white surfaces that bounce a large volume of light into the space.
    1. Having this information will help you plan for using light modifiers and neutral density (ND) filters to reduce the light levels of hot spots so that they fall within the dynamic range of the camera and aren’t blown out.
    2. Set your meter to Reflected Spot Metering Mode. The rest of your meter settings should be the same as in your overall reading.
    3. Stand in the spot where the camera will be. A map of the scene should be included in the information you get from the DP in advance.
    4. Aim your meter to include a hot spot in the viewfinder's spot reading circle.
    5. Take a reading and make a note of it. Make sure to label it clearly in your notes or write it on a diagram of the space so that when you look at it later, you’ll know exactly what the reading is for.
    6. Note the modifiers and supports you will need to bring the light level down in the hot spot. You may choose a different type of modifier after discussing your scout with the DP and figuring out which type of modifier will create the desired look. But taking some notes about the options while you’re on the spot is a good idea.
    7. Repeat these steps for all of the hot spots in the space.

    Engstrom: “It’s important to see if bright areas are out of range for the camera’s chip. What is your incident reading of the subject compared to the reflected reading of the highlight? Are you going to be able to hold the details in the highlight? A lot of times the answer is no.

    I’ll pull out my spot meter and meter a reflection of the sky or a little puddle of water. What affects how much light it reflects is not so much the light that’s falling on the water, but the object that’s reflected in it. That’s where the 1-degree meter is really important. It’s the same thing with certain metals. For example, when you’re metering a car, it’s definitely not the light that’s falling on the car that’s important. It’s the mountains that are reflecting in the paint or the chrome. It’s what kind of light is on the buildings around you that are reflecting in the car.”

    Meter dark areas and elements.

    This step measures the light level of dark areas within the space, such as poorly illuminated corners and dark objects that don’t reflect much light.
    1. Having this information will help you plan for using lights and reflectors to increase the light levels of in dark areas so that that they are visible in the scene instead of appearing as black areas without detail.
    2. Set your meter to a reflected spot metering mode. The rest of your meter settings should be the same as in your overall reading.
    3. Stand in the spot where the camera will be. A map of the scene should be included in the information you get from the DP in advance.
    4. Aim your meter to include a dark area in viewfinder's spot reading circle.
    5. Take a reading and make a note of it. Make sure to label it clearly in your notes or write it on a diagram of the space so that when you look at it later, you’ll know exactly what the reading is for.
    6. Note the lights, modifiers, and supports you will need to bring the light level up in the dark area. You may choose a different type of illumination after discussing your scout with the DP and figuring out how much detail you want to bring out in the area. But taking some notes about the options while you’re on the spot is a good idea.
    7. Repeat these steps for all of the dark areas in the space.

    Engstrom: “I ask the DP: ‘Do you want this to go really dark, or do you need details back here?’ For example, there was a giant boiler in the back of one of our shots in a warehouse recently, and it was black and just looked like one big shape. So I asked, ‘Do you want to see all the pipes coming out of it? How clearly do you want to see it in the scene? Do I need to light it?’”

    Check out the available power.

    • Find the electrical outlets available in the space and note their locations on your sketches or maps of the space.
    • Talk to the superintendent or property manager to get access to the location’s breaker panel, and use your amp probe to determine how much power is available so that you can plan to bring any extra power supplies or generators you’ll need. If you’re new to dealing with electrical systems, consult an expert. Never tinker with electrical systems if you’re not an expert yourself. All those things your mom told you about electricity being dangerous are true.

    The Results

    When you finish scouting, here’s what you should have:
    • Scene snapshots, diagrams, and sketches. Make relevant notes on them, mark them up with your metering results, and indicate where lights, modifiers, supports, and electrical lines should go.
    • Preliminary gear list. You can compile this from your scouting notes and sketches. It should include lights, modifiers, supports, power packs and lines, and generators.
    Here’s what to do with it:
    • Discuss it with the DP. Hone the creative vision for each scene and determine exactly which lights and modifiers will achieve the desired effects and illumination.
    • Create a lighting schedule. Make notes on the timeline or schedule provided by the director or DP to indicate when lighting needs to be set up or changed in each shooting space at the location. Determine which gear you’ll be able to move quickly from scene to scene and which will take too long to move between scenes will help you keep your equipment rental costs down.
    • Share the planning materials and timeline with your crew. Get their input and ideas during the planning phase, and help them show up at the shoot well prepared.
    • Finalize your gear list. Once you’ve received input from the DP and your crew, you can make the final decisions about the equipment you’ll need to bring and start acquiring it.

    Engstrom: “I shoot pictures on my phone during the scout, then sync my phone, open the pictures in Photoshop, and write on them. I’ll put an X where the camera is and an O where the subject is, draw little symbols for lights, and make notes. And then there will be a paragraph of notes for each image. I’ll send that to the crew members who weren’t at the scout. I try to get everybody’s head around it before it happens.”


    Category: Filmmaking

    Related Articles:
    Cine Essentials: Metering and Modifying Available Light
    Cine Essentials: Metering and Modifying Reflections
    Interview: Tal Lazar on Creating Visual Styles and Sekonic's DTS
    Lighthill on Light: A Conversation with the Cinematographer

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